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Women’s History Month: 8 Leadership Lessons from Liaison’s Women Executives

According to a recent report, women held just 23.5% of all board seats at the 3,000 largest public companies in the United States at the end of 2020. That’s an improvement from 15% four years earlier, but the goal of achieving gender parity in corporate leadership roles does not yet appear to be within easy reach.

At Liaison, the unique experience of being women leaders in a male-dominated industry is something that Deb Erdner (Vice President of CAS Operations), Maggie Frantz (Vice President of Customer Success, TargetX), Karen Jacobs (Vice President of Account Management) and Maggie Wilkerson (Vice President of Time2Track) share.

Frantz offered her insights in an interview for Liaison’s Women’s History Month blog series earlier this month, and Erdner, Jacobs and Wilkerson recently sat down with Liaison’s Marketing Director Laura Nicole Miller to offer their own lessons for peers of all gender identities as well. These conversations inspired the following advice to people of all gender identities who are — or aspire to be — leaders in their workplaces.

Lesson #1: Expect pushback

There’s more than one way to effectively manage people, yet women’s leadership styles in the workplace are often given short shrift.

“Individual styles vary, of course, but I think it’s accurate to say that women are more likely than men to take the ‘Sherpa’ approach to leadership — guiding their teams along, being supportive beside them,” said Jacobs.

“It’s a different philosophy, one that isn’t necessarily viewed as ‘strong leadership.’ But, based on my experience, this style is not just equally effective, but in many ways it’s even more effective than some of the more traditional leadership approaches.”

Lesson #2: Build trust to create balance

Trust goes a long way toward overcoming barriers and building strong teams. So, too, does recognizing the fact that our work and non-work lives sometimes come into conflict.

“When you have people you can trust, you don’t have to micromanage them,” Wilkerson said. “You trust them to manage their work responsibilities while also putting in a load of laundry or running errands in the middle of the day. We all have responsibilities outside of work. Women in particular have this challenge because whether we like it or not, we tend to be the default caretakers.”

With that in mind, Wilkerson stresses the importance of encouraging work-life balance: “You don’t want to lose people who are really great at their jobs and really great assets to the company. Burnout is something we don’t talk about enough.”

Lesson #3: Lead by example

For Erdner, leading by example and helping team members grow professionally are top priorities. “I’m not going to ask any of my team members to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself,” she said. “It’s important to meet people at their best and not get them to a point where they’re unhappy. I don’t want to just tell other people what to do, I want to help them grow.”

Erdner believes that such a high level of engagement and commitment made her ascension to a top executive position possible.

“A lot of people on the client side were rooting for me. I’m not a self-promoter at all! I earned my position of leadership and on the executive board because the clients said, ‘We like her and we want to talk to her.’”

“No matter what you’re doing now, be a leader at it,” Frantz said. “Use your skill and maturity to move the business forward. Whether you’re making operations run more smoothly or helping sell more software, people will notice. Even if you don’t have the bigger title yet, you’ll gain valuable experience that will help advance your career, whether at your current company or elsewhere.”

Lesson #4: Be persistent

Based on her experience, Jacobs says a combination of self-promotion and persistence can also be effective at helping women be noticed for their abilities and advance in their careers.

I was always very persistent and didn’t want to take no for an answer,” she said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m still here! And I really would like to be over there!’”

Lesson #5: Know your value

Whether you’re a natural self-promoter or not, Wilkerson believes you need to “hold out for what you believe you’re worth.”

“I like to think that my work and what I do speaks for itself. But that means people have to be paying attention, which isn’t always the case,” she said. “My advice: Know what you’re worth and know what you want. Having that knowledge makes it easier to ask for the things that are going to get you to your goals.”

Lesson #6: Lift each other up

All four executives agreed that helping other women — and themselves — overcome deeply rooted personal, societal and institutional obstacles is crucial to their shared success as well as the company’s future success.

“Sometimes people don’t believe in themselves enough,” Erdner said. “I see it as one of my responsibilities to push those people and tell them to put their hats in the ring. If it doesn’t work this time, it might work the next time.”

Jacobs added, “I’ve been very thankful and very grateful to have had female role models who actually said, ‘I’m doing this specifically because we’ve got to support each other. If I knock down some of the barriers, I’m going to step aside and let other women walk through.’ That’s really impactful, and I want to be able to do that, too. Challenging the status quo is hard to do when you’re outnumbered unless you combine forces.”

Lesson #7: Celebrate amazing women

These leaders have something else in common: A deep appreciation of the other women they work with at Liaison.

“When Time2Track was acquired, the women of Liaison were so welcoming,” Wilkerson said. “I have felt nothing but love, and support and camaraderie from other women here at the company. We have some incredibly amazing women in leadership roles at this company and we need to celebrate them. I’m happy that we are in blog series like this one!”

Lesson #8: Stop apologizing

All four women share a desire to help other women reach their full potential. Sometimes, that requires them to tell women to stop apologizing.

“Not apologizing is important, too,” Jacobs said. “I have proactively reached out to people and said, ‘I don’t want to hear you say ‘I’m sorry’ one more time for the good work you’re doing or for the fact that you want to put forward an idea.’ If you have a good idea, say it. Let everybody hear it. If it is a good idea, you will be able to defend it. I’ve had that conversation with younger men, too, but mostly with other women. No more apologizing. You have every right to be there, wherever you are. You have every right to be in whatever room you’re in and don’t ever apologize for it.”

“As a female executive, it’s imperative that I take my seat at the table and speak up,” Frantz added. “It goes back to bringing value. So I focus on speaking my mind without apology and trusting myself to navigate a conversation, come what may. It’s tricky to be the only woman at a table with lots of outspoken men. I love the challenge of being equally strong and vocal in those situations, but it still doesn’t always come naturally.”

Just as Black History Month can’t possibly give us enough time to fully acknowledge and celebrate Black Americans’ contributions to our society, Women’s History Month alone does not provide enough time to reflect on the accomplishments of people who identify as women. We hope our recent articles and blog posts on these important topics will continue to inspire meaningful change in the months and years ahead.

This article is part of Liaison’s celebration of Women’s History Month, an initiative which includes a series of blog posts spotlighting important women at Liaison and in the world of higher education. Click the links below to read our Women at Work spotlights: